CW: sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, revenge porn
If you’ve been paying attention to the recent media coverage of former Congresswoman Katie Hill, you should be frustrated. About a month ago, news broke about the freshman representative’s role in what has widely been described as a “sex scandal.” Like most sex scandals in Washington, or in general, though, Katie Hill’s recent affair is not clear-cut. Rather, Hill’s story is complicated and messy, ultimately provoking questions about the mainstream media’s ability to effectively respond to nuanced cases of abuse or sexual misconduct.
To recap, last month right-wing website RedState (which we will not be linking here) published a story leaking nude photos of Hill and exposing her nonmonogamous relationship with her now-estranged husband Kenny Heslep and a younger campaign staffer—information Hill claims Heslep provided to the outlet out of spite. Heslep also allegedly released text messages from the campaign staffer that suggest her relationship with Hill and Heslep was potentially abusive. Adding fuel to the fire, Heslep even accused Hill of having another inappropriate relationship with her legislative director, which she has denied. As a result, on October 23, the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into the allegations against Hill. A few days later on October 27 she officially announced her resignation on Twitter, and on October 31 she gave her final speech before Congress, admitting to and apologizing for Heslep’s initial charge while simultaneously defending herself and all women against double standards and mistreatment.
In the weeks since, journalists and politicians alike have commented on her aforementioned behavior, contributing to the overwhelming news cycle we are left to interpret. In their articles and tweets, they either defend Hill or they admonish her for putting herself in such a vulnerable position, but few seem to examine Hill’s case holistically. In other words, even in the era of the #MeToo movement, the mainstream media still manages to oversimplify Hill’s “sex scandal” somehow, condensing her story down until it fits a particular narrative. There’s something journalists and politicians are missing; according to most publications, Hill is either a victim of misogyny, biophobia, and intense media scrutiny, or she got what was coming to her. But it’s not that simple. What if she’s both a victim and a perpetrator?
For example, in an article for CNN, writer Brandon Tensley defends Hill as a victim of “uneven standards,” drawing comparisons to the many men in power who have been accused of sexual misconduct without punishment: “[M]en, particularly those of certain political persuasions, are often given redemption arcs, while women who dare challenge norms…are expected to buckle to biases and, ultimately, bow out.” The Washington Post published “What actually mattered in the Katie Hill scandal — and what didn’t,” in which columnist Monica Hesse encourages forgiveness, writing, “Katie Hill was pushed out for all the wrong reasons, but she’s trying to do the decent human thing now.” And several of Hill’s friends and colleagues in Congress, including Representative Ayanna Pressley, spoke out in her favor and tweeted their support.
I have no doubt that so many people who have survived abusive revenge porn felt seen & heard today. You have many more chapters ahead sis & I look forward to all the good you’ll do.— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) October 31, 2019
“We have an entire culture that needs to change and we see it with clarity today” @RepKatieHill
On the other hand, The New York Times published a story titled “Now Comes the Naked Truth,” in which opinion columnist Maureen Dowd ironically protests against the phrase “OK, Boomer,” instructing other millennials to learn from Katie Hill’s mistakes: “And don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition—or the nudes—to strip you of your dreams,” she writes, victim-blaming Hill for trusting her husband and “the shiny tools of modernity.”
Other, more conservative publications like Breitbart and the Washington Examiner have targeted Hill for being bisexual, poking fun at her non-monogamous relationship by publishing stories with headlines including phrases like “#MeThree” and “Swing district.” Taken together, each of these stories reduces Hill’s story down; some ignore her abusive faults while others literally just harass her for being a queer woman who has sex, shaming her for her bad behavior. Either way, they fail to accurately respond to the situation, leaving readers with a skewed understanding of Hill’s case and its implications.
Looking back, yes, this is partially about the abuse of power. Hill’s relationship with a subordinate—who is significantly younger than her—was absolutely inappropriate, especially when considering the details. In texts supposedly released by Heslep, Hill’s former campaign staffer wrote, “I am terrified of pushing back against you or upsetting you,” and that Hill “isolated” her and “took all of her friends,” all textbook signs of emotional abuse. Not to mention, despite Hill’s claims that it was consensual, having a secret relationship with an employee is questionable in and of itself.
But it’s also true Hill was given a much harsher sentence than most men accused of similar—or dare I say worse—sexual indiscretions throughout all of history, which is valid to note. Our current president, for example, has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct by at least 25 women. Yet, as the former sentence indicates, he was elected president, remains president, and has never been investigated on any of these claims—and we all know he’s not the only one. So, yes, Katie Hill’s case is also about double standards. It’s about the double standards that prevent women from seeking office in the first place, bully women out of office, and criticize women in a much harsher light.
Hill has been victimized by public sex-shaming, biphobia, misogyny, and revenge porn—a form of sexual violence that is both journalistically unethical and illegal in D.C. and her home state of California. In her resignation statement, Hill wrote, “having private photos of personal moments weaponized against me has been an appalling invasion of my privacy.” While Hill certainly made mistakes, she was also taken advantage of, likely by someone she had been in a relationship with for many years. And unfortunately, the narrative is almost completely centered on her; her soon-to-be ex-husband faces none of the consequences or scrutiny despite also engaging in abusive behavior.
So now that the dust has settled and Hill’s story is almost out of the news cycle, we can look back and see where mistakes were made. Complex and confusing cases like Hill’s make it clear the media often overlooks important intricacies of such stories, especially those relating to sensitive issues like identity and violence. For those on the political right, Hill’s case is somehow being portrayed as a win for them—something that shouldn’t even be considered when it comes to bringing victims of sexual violence or intimate partner violence to justice. But none of this was about bringing victims to justice in the first place. This was always about revenge, political bribery, and exploiting our culture’s love of harassing, violating, and perpetrating violence against women, especially women with formal political power.